Ballad-y songs with a happy story please
February 20, 2021 8:41 AM   Subscribe

My kids (6 & 3) are VERY into songs that tell stories. And generally those songs are tragic. My eldest is requesting some happier ones. Details below.

My 6-year-old's stated preferences are for 1) A good story 2) Some degree of what she calls 'bumpiness' so a bit of rhythm and (for the first time) she is requesting happy songs that fit these first two criteria.

Songs they love currently-- anything by Stan Rogers. (All songs of people dying tragically at sea.) 'Dark as a Dungeon.' 'Now That the Buffalo's Gone' by Buffy St. Marie. 'The Foggy Dew'. 'The River' by Bruce Springsteen. 'Aragon Mill' by Peggy Seeger. 'Millworker' by James Taylor. You get the idea.

In terms of happy songs with that gestalt: So far, I've come up with 'Star of the County Down' and 'Step it Up Nancy' by Holly Near. (As the Holly Near example makes clear I am interpreting Happy pretty loosely.)

I'd prefer nothing explicitly sexual and I am mostly singing these songs at bedtime so definitely something that a normal person can belt out, but barring that, hit me with your best happy ballads or ballad-esque songs!
posted by jeszac to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a kid I absolutely loved Roger Miller's work. (Some of it is kind of dark. But, never mean, as far as I can remember.)
posted by eotvos at 8:56 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


How about a little kid seeing a modern train for the first time? Guy Clark, "Texas, 1947"
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:09 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


On reflection, don't let your kid listen to "Ruby" until they're old enough to enjoy reading books about serial killers. Some of the songs are mean. Most are not, I think.
posted by eotvos at 9:15 AM on February 20


Also, Chumbawamba has lots of songs with very specific heroic stories that even I can sing along to. English Rebel Songs is very singable and the ugly stuff is pretty mild. (They can be rude at times. Listen to it first if saying things like"fuck" is a problem. But, it's pretty rare in that album.)
posted by eotvos at 9:21 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]


The Wellerman song (full lyrics, warning for whale cruelty in latter parts) is not exactly happy but it's not tragic, and has a very cheerful and rhythmic tune.

Some musicals have songs like this. If you ever watch The Court Jester with them (as an example), they might like the intro song and the one about how the main character became a jester. (Disney songs are most often more about character's inner worlds than plot, but they might also kind of scratch that itch.) ETA: Danny Kaye also sings a great song that tells the story of the Ugly Duckling.

Also some Weird Al songs might fit the bill, like the Piano Man parody about Spider Man (nothing explicitly sexual, but a little about Mary Jane being hot for Peter..)
posted by trig at 9:26 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Muskrat Love (America cover) might be a little soft, but hey -- muskrats! You can always add on Horse with No Name.
posted by maudlin at 9:26 AM on February 20


David Bowie - A Windmill In Old Amsterdam

Kenny Rogers - The Gambler
posted by essexjan at 9:28 AM on February 20


This is a love song but fairly tame: Queen of Argyle I like this group's covers a lot but any sort of Renn Fest, medieval covers group will have some traditional ballads. Something like Johnny Jump Up would be perfect for your purposes but I would screen it first because I think they use a crappy word for a disabled person in there. So some of these older songs will have issues, but that's a good place to look.
posted by clarinet at 9:38 AM on February 20


Oh boy are you speaking my language. My parents sang me folk songs at night as a kid and I drew a picture of the Mary Ellen Carter in third grade art class.

I'm gonna check through my music library, but I can also recommend a technique my parents used - they just changed the endings of some songs so that they were happy. In particular I loved the folk song The Golden Vanity, in which a captain betrays a cabin boy and leaves him to drown. The original last verse:

His messmates took him up, and on the deck he died
And they laid him in his hammock that was so long and wide
And they threw him overboard, and he drifted with the tide,
As they sailed upon the Lowland Sea.

My parents' version:

His messmates took him up, and on the deck he sighed
And he laid down in his hammock that was so long and wide
And everyone got so mad that the captain had to hide,
As they sailed upon the Lowland Sea.

In my head that's still how that song ends.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:41 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]


This sounds precisely like the folky things that my mom listened to at times...

Pete Seeger did a spin on "Froggy Went-A Courting" that mixes in lyrics about cheese and apples he called "Here's to Cheshire".

The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, perhaps? It's not a full-on "story", but it's fun and bouncy.

Harry Belafonte has an adorable song, Man Piaba, which is a humorous spin on a little kid wanting to know "where babies come from" and the adults he asks (starting with his parents, then Albert Einstein, then Sigmund Freud) all being so embarrassed they stammer out the same completely nonsense phrases by way of explanation. You may have to explain who Einstein and Freud were, but the nonsense is easy to learn and memorable, and should appeal -

"The woman piaba and the man piaba
And the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of lovers-parted-and-reunited story songs from England, often with disguises or mistaken identity. Banks of the Dee and Pleasant and Delightful and that sort of thing.

There are some comic music hall songs that have snuck into the folkie repertoire that tell silly stories. I'm thinking of The Old Dun Cow and that one where Paddy is the victim of various OSHA violations (hopefully someone will remember what I mean), things of that ilk. They tend to have mayhem and cartoon violence but not bleak despair.

The Bitter Withy is a trad ballad that's weird but not sad or sexy. There are versions of The Elf Knight where she kills the evil elf knight instead of being killed that would make a good suspenseful-but-ultimately-happy story. I wonder if there's a version of Tam Lin that is short and unsexy enough for your needs — that's absolutely got a happy ending.

The Fox tells a kid-friendly story that's happy as long as you don't emotionally identify with the ducks and geese.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:49 AM on February 20


Okay, when my sister and I were that age, my parents played Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant for us endlessly. We freaking LOVED it and it's still pretty iconic in our family, but also it was the early 70s so YMMV? (At the very least, includes 70s usage of the word "faggot.")
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:52 AM on February 20


The***** Rover? Versions that end with "he is no *****, my father she said, but lord of these lands all over/And I will stay to my dying day with the whistling ***** rover."

"Song of the Wandering Angus", sometimes known as "Golden Apples of the Sun" Usually not bouncy but a beautiful images, no violence, and hope.
posted by mermayd at 9:57 AM on February 20


My sister and I absolutely loved singing Sweet Violets when we were young. (With very little prompting, we will still sing it today!)
posted by WaspEnterprises at 10:01 AM on February 20


Probably not an experience your kids (or me, for that matter!) can relate to literally, but Richard Shindell - Wysteria has the song's point-of-view character reminiscing with his partner about the first home they owned. "We've moved on together [presumably happier, to a new home / different phase of life], but it's bittersweet to come back here and see how the place we made all those memories has changed," more or less.
posted by Alterscape at 10:01 AM on February 20


2nding some of Weird Al! The first one that came to mind was Frank's 2000" TV. The story is literally about a guy getting a 2000" TV and its effect on neighbourhood - not exactly a literary masterpiece, but the meanest thing in the song is a quip about Robert DiNero's mole being huge on a TV that size.
posted by cgg at 10:03 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]




Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten

I loved exactly this type of song when I was a child, and one of my favourites was Lord Franklin by Pentangle. It's not happy but I had to suggest it!
posted by mani at 10:05 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


OH WAIT SHEL SILVERSTEIN. Dude wrote a lot of songs in the same vein as his poems. They range from totally tame to kinda raunchy — you'll want the tame end, but don't be put off if you find the raunchy ones first — they mostly tell funny stories, and they tend to be solid verse-chorus or verses-only songs that go well without instruments. "Boy Named Sue" was one of his, and "The Unicorn" is another.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:09 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]


Well if we're gonna do Captain and Tennille, we gotta mention Convoy, the ur-example of the heroic trucker's ballad.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:11 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Damn you're right, this is hard!

Since you mentioned Peggy Seeger: Gonna Be An Engineer. It's about sexism but it ends on a very triumphant note.

A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash fits the bill and I bet they'll think it's hilarious. Who knew it was written by Shel Silverstein, I sure didn't!

Marty Robbins has a few that could work well. There's Mr. Shorty, which isn't exactly happy (it's about a short guy who shoots a man who makes fun of his height) but it is funny. My sister loved it. Big Iron similarly ends with the good guy winning the gunfight. And Cowboy in the Continental Suit has no violence, it's about an apparently know-nothing well-dressed man showing up out of nowhere and taming an untamable bronco.

Suds in the Bucket is a sweet country song about an elopement, kind of on the verge of being a story-song but I really liked it as a kid.

Erm, probably Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks is a bit violent for your purposes, seeing as it's about two women murdering an abusive husband and getting away with it, but it does have a happy ending (for everyone but Earl).

The first person I thought of was Steve Earle, he has a ton of story songs, but on looking through them, they're literally all depressing! If you want to check them out anyway: Carrie Brown, Devil's Right Hand, Leroy's Dustbowl Blues, Billie and Bonnie, Tom Ames' Prayer are all amazing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:29 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


I might skip The Unicorn (as it's sad--although I see there is now a sequel to the piece that I've never heard, so maybe there's a happy ending) but the Irish Rovers tend to produce upbeat-sounding, catchy ballads that tell stories. One of the advantages for your purpose is that even when they're singing about darker themes, their accents and their vocabulary don't lend themselves to making the content really obvious to younger North American kids who don't have the cultural and historical context that Irish listeners would have.

And I'm also putting in a vote for Weird Al, even though you haven't marked any of the responses that mention him with Best Answer.
posted by sardonyx at 10:35 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Here's one to start. Not quite a ballad, but here's a silly one kids tend to like.
posted by sardonyx at 10:47 AM on February 20


And I'd argue that Grandma's Featherbed has a complete narrative and is kid-friendly, except for the ominous turn at the end where the narrator declares his intention to betray his elder family to acquire antique furniture.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:47 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]


Since you mention The Foggy Dew, one of my favorites is Rocky Road to Dublin (here’s the Gaelic Storm version). SUCH fun rhythm for singing, and the story is about a guy traveling to Dublin to make a fortune and his adventures. I often sing parts to my three year old. Gaelic Storm tends to have a lot of happy ballads, whether traditional or their own (they do a great Johnny Jump Up, as mentioned above, too). Other fun ones might be I Miss My Home, Born to be a Bachelor, and Tell Me Ma.

I LOVE Follow Me Up to Carlow (here by the Young Dubs) but it’s probably too gory for kids. Save it for when they’re older?

Similarly, Whiskey Bards has a great song called Wild Hunt but it may be far too spooky for kiddos. They may have other songs that are more kid friendly though - they’re a Ren Faire/SCA band and their stuff is quite fun!
posted by bananacabana at 10:51 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


FYI, in case anybody is curious (and I'll admit, curiosity got the better of me), the unicorns got turned into narwhals in the sequel, and they're happy swimming free in the deep blue see, and thus survived Noah's flood.
posted by sardonyx at 10:55 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


There is a band that apparently nobody but my family has ever heard of called the Austin Lounge Lizards, who are absolutely hilarious and bizarre and amazing. They have a number of highly weird story songs that I can't believe I didn't think to mention before, because my sister and I were OBSESSED, OBSESSED I SAY, with this band when we were kids.

Boudreaux Was A Nutcase - a take on Moby Dick but starring a bass fisherman.

Saguaro - based on a real story about a guy who went out to illegally shoot up saguaro cactuses for fun and was killed when one fell on him. Written like a serious gunfighter ballad.

The Three Sinners - the biblical parable of the man who built his house upon the sand, except it's The Three Little Pigs.

There are plenty more but they get increasingly referential to the point where little kids wouldn't really get it - like, they have a song about Luis Buñuel and Richard Petty collaborating on a surrealistic film about NASCAR racing, and that is a totally representative example - but if you like the above, definitely seek out more of their stuff.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:56 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


MTA by the Kingston trio is perfect. But you may have to explain that it’s a joke. A funny story, not real.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:00 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]


Showbiz_liz mentioned The Mary Ellen Carter. Here is one version.

When my kids were young they loved Tennessee Stud by Johnny Cash.

Another suggestion: If You Ain't Got Love by Mason Jennings. (My teenage daughter and I got into a discussion about this song one time and it turned out that we had opposing ideas about whether it was a happy song. She imagined the narrator was singing to his daughter, who was going to die young because of the heart problems mentioned in the second verse, and that he also expected to die soon. But I was able to convince her, with the help of an article I found where Jennings talked about the song, that that was the wrong interpretation. This really is a happy song, but just be aware that your kid could hear something different in it.)
posted by Redstart at 11:42 AM on February 20


(All songs of people dying tragically at sea.)

If these are okay, I have three.
  • The Titanic song we sang at camp.
  • The Gallant Argosy by the Brothers Four (which I loved when I was six, although I didn't really understand)
  • Running Bear (uses Native American stereotypes somebody's bound to find offensive)

posted by Rash at 11:45 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Cat's in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon

Ob La Di, Ob La Da

Puff The Magic Dragon (a bit sad)

The Other Day I Met A Bear

Old Hiram's Goat (note that every single line of this song should be a call and response echo)

One Tin Soldier (kind of a bummer but still satisfying)

The Witch's Greens from Into The Woods
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:53 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


You might also sample the Smithsonian collection of folk songs for kids.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:56 AM on February 20


Jerry Reed's The Bird is the silliest country song ever.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:14 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


My children used to walk around singing butchered versions of Malvina Reynolds' Little Boxes. It's not exactly a story, but it covers the passage of lives and generations. It's a bright, happy song, and a scathing condemnation of society. I still like it a lot.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 12:33 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


The Devil Went Down to Georgia - Charlie Daniels

Spiders and Snakes - Jim Stafford

$60 Duck - Lewie Wickham

Mississippi Squirrel Revival - Ray Stevens
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:47 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]




Sovay? She doesn't actually shoot her true love--he keeps faith with her!
posted by merriment at 1:46 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Two more to consider:
The other day I met a bear
and
Sippin’ Cider. One of many versions, some inappropriate for children.

Opposite Day is cute, too.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:02 PM on February 20


This Ol' Riverboat is the only one I can think of that isn't sad within itself that I haven't seen mention in the thread yet.
posted by DebetEsse at 2:31 PM on February 20


Willie Taylor ends with her shooting her faithless lover, so true for certain variations of happy ending. As a kid I dreamed up a final verse where the ship's captain helps her hide the bodies and then they run off together. And that CHORUS.
posted by theweasel at 2:32 PM on February 20


The Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO
America by Simon & Garfunkle
The Gambler by Kenny Rogers
Fast Car by Tracy Champan (she does come to her senses and kick him out at the end)
One of my favorites was always Come Dancing by The Kinks and maybe you'll find Lola too racy
Our House by Madness - not really a story but a snapshot of a day in the life
The Harper Valley PTA (many covers, but start with Loretta Lynn)

And may I suggest the albums of The Smothers Brothers. I loved The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers when I was a kid that featured "I Fell in a Vat of Chocolate"
posted by typetive at 2:46 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


They Might Be Giants are the gold standard for modern kids lyrics. Start with their award winning kid's album NO!

The House at the Top of the Tree
posted by irisclara at 3:50 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Seconding the Smothers Brothers! We adored The Last Great Waltz.
posted by evilmomlady at 4:13 PM on February 20


(theweasel, you're not the only one - in many versions of Billy Taylor, the captain does indeed approve of what she's done, and either marries her or makes her "chief commander of a ship and a hundred men"!)
posted by offog at 4:20 PM on February 20


Harry Nilsson made an entire album like this that's perfect for a kid her age. It's called The Point! There was also a cartoon that went along with it.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:09 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Jewel has a children’s album called The Merry Goes Round. Several of the songs tell a story, particularly: Sammy the Spider, Sarah Swan Sleepyhead and Bucky the Bull. Sarah is a soft ballad, whereas the other two are a bit faster paced. Happy listening!
posted by leslievictoria at 9:03 PM on February 20


Hot Rod Lincoln!
posted by saladin at 6:16 AM on February 22


Oh Oh Oh Oh!

There is an Irish folk band named Solas, and they have a song, The Maid On The Shore, that would be IDEAL. It's about a young woman who lives alone on a beach, wandering around feeling lonely, and a sailing ship comes by and the captain flips for her and the crew brings her on board and they have a grand rumbustious dinner, after which the woman offers to sing to them and her song puts them to sleep - because the wandering-alone-on-the-beach thing was all an act, and once they're asleep she robs them all blind and rows back home in a lifeboat, rich as shit.

It's lively, it's got a plot twist, and it's heavily implied that the dudes on the ship are pirates.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:35 AM on February 22 [3 favorites]


Bernard Cribbins - Hole in the Ground (implied comic violence done to a busybody stopping someone doing their job but very funny).
posted by crocomancer at 6:39 AM on February 24


And another Bernard Cribbins - Right, Said Fred (and yes, this is where the band got its name). It's about a bunch of guys trying to move this bulky piece of furniture up a set of stairs, but they can't quite manage it, even after "Fred" suggests removing various attachments or knocking down walls and ceilings to accomodate; they never manage it and the house is pretty much in shambles by the end. You also never find out what the thing WAS.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:10 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


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